Thanks to his descendants and Penguin Books, who rescued it from oblivion, the memoir of 19th-century merchant captain Charles Tyng is available for our enjoyment and instruction. The son of a successful Massachusetts lawyer, Tyng was a very indifferent student who was ultimately compelled by his father to go to sea. After his first voyage, during which he endured considerable hardships, he informed his father that life as a sailor was not for him; however, Tyng senior prevailed upon him to stick to the profession, and young Charles, over time, worked his way up the ratings scale and eventually became a prosperous captain, ship-owner and merchant. About a year before his death at age 78, Tyng began writing his memoir – published under the title Before the Wind: the Memoir of an American Sea Captain (1808 – 1833) - which ends some 40 years before his retirement, possibly because he began writing it so late in life.
But what a life it was! Over the period covered in this book, Tyng traveled to China, Cuba, England, Germany and Spain, just to name a few of his destinations, and was constantly beset by mutinous crews, pirates, hurricanes, epidemics of cholera and other diseases, crooked commission agents, and the occasional Latin American revolution - all of which are described in an engaging style that makes for a real page-turner. Here he describes a rather severe instance of Chinese workman’s comp:
There is a curious law in China, which was put in force during our stay. That is, if a Chinese is killed, or loses his life while working on board of a foreign vessel, one of the foreigners must be given in return…The case I refer to was on board another vessel, to a Chinaman who was at work taking on board the cargo…I think he fell in the hold. The authorities demanded one of the crew should be given up, which the Captain refused to do, and the work of sending his cargo was stopped…The Chinese insisted upon it, and the mandarins came down in a big boat, also the American consul, and held a sort of court on board, and after some time it was decided that the man who was working nearest to the Chinaman, when the accident happened, should go up to the city under the solemn promise that he should not be harmed, but only to explain to the higher mandarins how it happened. Under this agreement the Captain let the man go. That night, as we learned afterwards, he was squeezed to death, by tying a rope round his body, and two men with bamboo sticks twisting the strap round him until he was a dead man.On one voyage, Tyng had a close encounter with a crazed steward:
The steward was a French mulatto, a half crazy fellow [who] boasted of having been in the wars with Napoleon, [and] was very careless, neglectful and dirty…Upon opening his [the steward’s] chest, he found several of his [the Captain’s] bottles empty which were filled with cherry cordial, some of his private stores, which he had not commenced on. He wanted him tied up and flogged…I told Captain M. that the man was certainly crazy. I begged him off a flogging and got him to beg the Capt. pardon, and do so no more, which he did and the Capt. let him off. I then went down to my state room…In the course of half an hour, the steward rushed into my room, with a large carving knife in his hand, his eyes glaring most wildly. He made towards me. I sprung up, reached my hand for my pistol. He seemed confused, evidently expecting to find me asleep. He went for the cabin door, but instantly turned and came to the door of my room. I pointed my pistol at him, he threw the knife down, and run up on deck. At once there was the cry “A man overboard.” I went up on deck and found that the steward had jumped overboard, and looked over the side and saw him about a fathom under water with his face downwards, his arms and legs stretched out, and without motion, sinking fast, so that it would have been useless to try and save him…I found afterwards a pot half full of rum, which he had been drinking from, until he became frenzied, and produced that awful glare of his eyes, which I shall never forget.Along the way, Tyng went shares in a stuffed mermaid, met Lord Byron and (the future) Queen Victoria, grew wealthy shipping sugar, molasses, linseed oil, and flour, acquired a wife and survived a bout with cholera. His was a vigorous, active life – cheerful, overall, in spite of so many preoccupations and dangers - and it is here described with candor and beautiful simplicity.